Fishhooks

The Commerce Commission’s monitoring report is a tale of two halves.

On the one hand, you have a highly competitive market with prices well below the OECD average and fierce competition. Customers are being offered more for less and new offerings come to the market regularly.

Customers can buy data, voice, TXT, they can go on prepay plans or on account and they’re loving it.

The other market consists of prices up to 190% of the OECD average, limited market energy, little or no competitive pressure and a distinct lack of creativity.

The reason for the difference is clear – 2Degrees.

The first market is the low-end prepay and on account segment where 2Degrees has vigorously burst onto the scene only a handful of years ago. The third entrant has radically changed the dynamic and the other two network incumbents have been forced to respond in kind.

Suddenly we see bundles on offer at $19/month that only months earlier had sold for $70/month. The drop in price has been matched by an increase in value – customers get more TXTs, more minutes, can call more friends and family members in more calling groups and have more data to use on their shiny new smartphones than ever before.

Since it arrived, 2Degrees has fought well in this market and achieved a great deal. It’s customer numbers have long since passed the million user mark and are still rising. It’s very successful, so long as your measure of success doesn’t include “breaking even” because clearly the cost of spending on network deployment (and the impending launch of 4G as well) is not a trivial matter. It will be quite some time before 2Degrees is in the black.

The other market, however, is failing to deliver on that promise. High end business and corporate plans, and larger on account offerings, simply aren’t seeing the same level of movement to 2Degrees and I’m wondering why.

It’s not as though the plans on offer don’t appeal to business or high end customers. The same price points are attractive across the board, and while business customers care less about the costs associated with the service, the CFO certainly does and typically buying decisions are made at that level.

So why is it that 2Degrees isn’t carving the same level of fat out of this market?

I suspect it’s a combination of factors, not least of which is the speed with which customers can disentangle themselves from their contracts.

Prepay customers are free to move quickly and easily between providers. On account customers face many barriers to switching, not least of which is the ever present “early termination fee”, which is often applied even if you’re moving within the same provider to a better suited plan.

These fishhooks mean there is a lag in movement for on account customers. Instead of simply picking up and shifting to a new provider, OA customers must wait until a certain time period has passed, or until they’ve paid off their new “free” handsets (which of course are never free but rather “$0 up front” and which must be paid in full before customers are allowed to move on).

Early termination charges often include an extra fishhook – rather than simply repaying the cost of the device, they attempt to recoup the worth of that contract to the provider. Sign up for two or more years and you’ll find your “worth” is quite a bit and if you want to get away early, the break fee can be quite astonishing.

I think it’s high time we called these zero dollar handset subsidies what they really are: hire purchase agreements. You get to take the phone home with you, but you’re tied to a provider for years and end up paying more for the service than you should.

It’s time, I think, that the Commerce Commission had a closer look at all of this, and I’d go a step further and call on the government’s inquiry into the Telecommunications Act to consider the issue as well.

The numbers are clear for anyone to see – something’s stopping on account customers from migrating to 2Degrees and it’s not the price point.